A new Ohio law solidifies the state’s reputation for stifling clean energy industries. And the law may well be an economic development victory for places that stand to gain projects Ohio chases away.
For clean energy advocates, the signing of Senate Bill 52 this month by Gov. Mike DeWine is the latest in a string of disappointments.
The new law says county governments can pass resolutions to ban large wind and solar developments, or say that certain parts of their counties are off-limits to wind and solar projects. Developers need to give county governments at least 90 days notice before filing an application with the state regulator, the Ohio Power Siting Board, so that county officials have time to review the plan and take action before the state board begins its review.
The law marks a shift away from state control of siting for large wind and solar projects. The state board will continue to review and vote on applications, but county governments will now have a way to circumvent the state’s authority.
In contrast, lawmakers in Ohio have taken great pains to rein in local control over fossil fuels, enacting a law, signed this year, that bans local governments from restricting the use of natural gas. Local governments already are barred by the state from taking actions that would limit oil and gas production.
“It’s hypocrisy,” said Susan Munroe, director of economic development at Chambers for Innovation & Clean Energy, a national organization that works with chambers of commerce to promote clean energy investment. “It’s just another way to drive away that growth, drive away those jobs.”
From 2011 to 2018, Munroe was economic development director for rural Van Wert County, Ohio, and was there for the development of the state’s largest wind farm in her county. She was a familiar face lobbying against the restrictions on wind energy that the Ohio General Assembly passed during those years.
Economic development leaders in the Columbus metro area lobbied against this latest bill to no avail. The capital city is a major consumer of renewable energy, and local officials are trying to attract employers that often want to have a supply of renewable energy available to their operations. The state’s actions are hurting those efforts.
The new law is arriving just as Ohio is seeing a boom in solar projects. With 527 megawatts of solar, the state ranks 25th in the country. Of that total, 193 megawatts are in the few projects that are 10 megawatts or larger.
From that modest start, Ohio is poised to build another 2,924 megawatts in projects that have been approved by the state board but not yet completed, including 370 megawatts of projects that are under construction. Another 4,505 megawatts of projects have pending applications or are in a pre-application phase.
The solar farms are being built to serve tech companies like Amazon and for city initiatives, like Columbus’ plan to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources.
To have so many projects on tap is remarkable considering that as recently as last year, the largest solar project in the state was just 20 megawatts. The approved projects will not be affected by the new law unless they request amendments to their plans.
Ohio lawmakers say they are listening to constituents who feel that renewable energy is transforming their communities in a bad way by turning rural landscapes into industrial sites. Opponents of projects say they don’t get enough of an opportunity to make their voices heard through the Power Siting Board’s public hearings and public comment process.
“Senate Bill 52 is a fair bill and is truly about local control,” said Republican Sens. Bill Reineke and Rob McColley, the bill’s co-sponsors, in written testimony.
They said the process of approving projects has been unfairly steered by companies and people from outside the state.
“Maybe some of these outsiders pushing these projects on us can build them in their backyard, or at least acknowledge what these turbines do to our properties and our landscapes,” the senators said.
Lawmakers sat through hours-long hearings, listening to a succession of residents who want to restrict renewable energy and to environmental advocates, local government officials and business lobbyists who said the bill would be harmful to the state’s environment and economy.
Some supporters of the bill made claims that are not supported by reliable evidence, as Kathiann Kowalski reported for Energy News Network. One was that chemicals from solar panels are contaminating soil. To the chagrin, but not the surprise, of environmental advocates, lawmakers seemed to accept these claims.
Ohio has not been a model for forward-thinking energy policy. In 2019, lawmakers passed a bailout of nuclear and coal-fired power plants that is now the subject of a bribery investigation and led to the indictment last year of former House Speaker Larry Householder. DeWine signed both that bill and this latest one on county control.
DeWine’s office has not commented about the governor’s rationale for signing the latest bill, and a DeWine spokeswoman said she is unaware of any public comments he has made on the subject since signing it. His office had no other comment before my deadline.
So what happens next? I’ll be watching to see how local officials use the law when it takes effect on Oct. 11.
Munroe said the law means that developers are going to have to put more resources into local outreach. That’s not a bad thing. But the companies say they already devote substantial resources to communicating with local governments, land owners and residents, and the Power Siting Board process already has requirements for local notice.
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The fear for opponents of the law is that developers will see the uncertainty that comes from this new local veto and choose to build projects in states where there are fewer obstacles.
There is a precedent that may offer clues for what’s ahead. In 2014, lawmakers increased the required distance between wind turbines and nearby property lines in a way that would reduce the number of turbines that could be placed in a wind project.
Since then, nearly all the wind projects that have been built have been those with state permits that predated the 2014 law and were allowed to move forward under previous rules. This was at a time when wind development was booming in many other places.
Munroe watched the slowdown as an economic development director in a part of the state rich in wind resources, where the wind industry was one of the most promising ways to attract investment.
“The majority of wind developers said, ‘See ya, we’re going to go to another state,’” she said. “And guess what, they did.”
Other stories about the energy transition to take note of this week:
North Carolina Lithium Project Faces Local Opposition: Piedmont Lithium Inc. wants to build a large lithium mine in North Carolina to supply a key material for electric vehicles and battery storage, but the company has done a poor job of assuring local officials that the project won’t be a nuisance. Five of seven members of the county board of commissioners say they may block or delay the project because Piedmont has not provided information about the level of dust and noise or how water and air quality may be affected, as Ernest Scheyder reports for Reuters. The lack of attention to local concerns is a problem for Piedmont and for its customers, which include Tesla, at a time when U.S. officials have said it is important to have local sources of key materials.
New Companies Aim to Help with Carbon Accounting: Businesses that want to reduce their carbon emissions have a complicated task of measuring their emissions and then figuring out how to make changes. Several new start-up companies want to help, as Emma Foehringer Merchant reports for Canary Media. “It’s our view that pretty soon, companies aren’t going to have a choice on whether or not they’re acting on climate,” said Taylor Francis, a co-founder of Watershed, a software startup that helps companies measure and cut their emissions. “The choice is going to be how they do it.”
Now 19 States Have Barred Local Natural Gas Bans: In response to cities passing bans on natural gas hookups in new construction, mainly in California, the gas industry has worked to get states to pass laws that “ban the bans.” After a wave of new laws this year, 19 states now restrict the ability of local governments to restrict or ban the use of natural gas, according to Tom DiChristopher of S&P Market Intelligence. The states are in the South, Midwest and Mountain West, a footprint that doesn’t overlap with the places where cities have been most likely to pass local gas restrictions. Meanwhile, cities in other states, including New York City, continue to explore gas bans or restrictions.
How Could Preserving a Coal Plant Be Good for Clean Energy?: The proposed sale of a North Dakota coal-fired power plant is leading to sharp disagreement. I wrote about the proposal, which calls for installing a carbon capture system at the plant and developing wind farms, part of a larger strategy to find a way to produce electricity from coal in a clean way. Environmental groups say the plan is a waste of money and a distraction from the urgency of addressing climate change, while people close to the project say it’s worth trying to preserve jobs at the plant and the nearby coal mine. The debate touches on a larger divide about how some parts of the country feel as if the transition to clean energy is going to hurt more than it helps.